Memes like ‘survival of the fittest’ ‘do unto others before they do unto you’ and the whole outlook of the economic rat race discourage compassion. It’s not a good idea to care too much about whose fingers you stand on as you climb, whose dreams you trample, whose future you destroy. Caring is all about slowing down, because if you don’t hang around to hear it, you’ll never know what others think or feel.
Bothering about others, human and creature, plants and places, is precisely an art of engagement with the world. Even the art of being a little gentler with ourselves encourages us to look outwards. When we recognise our own fragility and shortcomings, give ourselves a break for being human and flawed, and stop trying to imagine we are, or should be perfect, it becomes possible to treat everything else that bit more gently too.
So much of how we treat people and the rest of the planet has to do with expectation. What we think we ought to get, how we think we ought to be treated, what we think things are worth, and the sense of priority we carry with us. And so getting the job out of the door starts to seem more important than who has a heart attack making it happen. Forget wrecking a landscape, we’re going to create jobs, that’s the priority! We’re going to generate wealth, so it’s silly to say we shouldn’t dismantle a community to make that happen. A non-compassionate culture puts wealth, assets, job creation and ‘progress’ before the wellbeing of the individual.
What on earth is the point of ‘progress’ that pillages as it goes? We mistake benefits for the tiny minority for a good thing. Compassionate thinking doesn’t consider a bank balance, or GDP. It looks at living, feeling, breathing entities in their own right and values them for existing. It sees webs of connections, communities and landscape and knows that they have a wealth in them far beyond money. A compassionate perspective is one which, pretty much by definition, does not seek to exploit. It’s all about what is sustainable.
We learn to care by being a little bit more open to all that is around us. Taking the time to listen, to empathise, trying to imagine how it looks from the other side, what it could mean. We don’t just assume that our own desires should be paramount, we put them in context. Recognising the humanity of other humans, the spirit and the sacredness of all that is not human and around us, we can start to treat all of it like family.
It is impossible to live without consuming. The more we love our food sources, the more challenging that becomes. The person who squashes their capacity for compassion can act far more easily, feeling no pain over waste, ruin and wanton destruction. Our society endorses this very approach. That doesn’t make it right. Caring exposes us to pain. Compassion will lead us towards a desire for action. Compassionate action. Work in the world that makes things better, that lightens the burden for others, minimises suffering, avoids using, does not defile or exploit.
There are so many things to care about that it can be threatening indeed to open the self to what is really out there. I am tempted to compare compassion, as an art, to striptease. Imagine that you start out swathed in layers of clothes. So many layers that you can barely move your limbs. No outside bodily sensations get through to you. Taking off a layer of clothing will be technically challenging, and you’ll hardly notice the difference. Why bother? Take off another layer, and another. There will be an audience, and they will wonder what you’re doing, and they may stare. Take off another layer, it may be by now that you have some freedom of movement, and are noticing how everyone else still has far too much insulation wrapped around their bodies. You may be down far enough now that you can dance where others cannot. For a while it may seem easy, but you’re now wearing far less than anyone else. Bits of your skin are visible. If you keep going, all of your skin will be on display, there will be no where left to hide. Everyone will be looking at you then. There will be no protection between you and the world. Nothing to keep off the cold wind or the rain. Nothing to keep you warm. If what you find is agony, you no longer have a comfort blanket.
There are days when it’s not just about feeling naked, I don’t even seem to have skin on either. The news makes me cry. I didn’t consciously choose to walk this path, it happened as a consequence of life experience, and it hurts. I can’t and won’t step away from it though, because it is real. Painfully, precisely real. It makes me cry a lot.
But I also know that if more people dared to strip off even a few layers, then so much would change. What’s making the world such a dangerous place so much of the time, is our devastating desire to keep ourselves safe.